The Final Word

Alumna and College of Letters, Arts and Sciences Dean Joan Foster reveals how MSU Denver and marine science changed her life, what it’s like to work for her alma mater and the significance of her coffee mug.

By Roger Fillion

Publish Date: June 22, 2015

Photo: Dave Neligh

An internship with marine-science gurus changed Joan Foster’s life. After earning a bachelor’s degree in biology from MSU Denver in 1978, Foster’s internship led to a job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Environmental Research Laboratories in Boulder. “By working with a bunch of Ph.D.s at NOAA, I realized I wanted to go to graduate school and become a professor,” she said. Today, the Denver native is dean of MSU Denver’s College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

What was MSU Denver like in the 1970s? MSU Denver was still down around Colfax in a bunch of rented buildings. The “Chicken Unlimited” — a fast food restaurant — was the closest thing we had to a student union. 

How were you transformed by your time at MSU Denver? I excelled. During my first year, I played on the women’s volleyball team, which then practiced at the YWCA. I got to know the faculty and they got to know me. I was transformed by learning how to learn. 

What made you want to return here after graduation? During my time as an undergrad at MSU Denver, I grew to love learning. I wanted to provide that opportunity to students.

What does it mean to you — personally and professionally — to work at your alma mater? MSU Denver transforms lives. It takes students from all walks of life and provides them the opportunity to better themselves through education. We provide rich classroom environments through the diversity of our students.      

How has MSU Denver’s reputation changed over the years? We have gained a strong recognition in the community that is spreading across the country. We are seen as a nimble, innovative institution that provides a great education for a variety of students. We play an important role in the Denver area.  

Moving forward, what are your hopes, goals and vision for the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences? To keep the college as diverse, strong and vibrant as possible. We have outstanding, dedicated faculty and staff, terrific disciplines and great curricula. I’d like to increase our retention and graduation rates so that more students are successful. We also reach out to the surrounding community, and bring K-12 students and adults to campus for educational and arts events. Maintaining this relationship with the community is very important.

You have your own signature coffee cup: a science beaker! Tell us about it. I have had a beaker cup for 15-20 years. I was the faculty advisor to the biology club way back in the 1990s and we sold them to make money. Underneath it all, I have maintained the curiosity of a scientist. I want to learn how things work. And my beaker mug is my reminder of that core drive.